Knowing Who We Are

Tekoa Criddell

Author Info

Course: Humanities Honor Seminar IV (HUMH 2020)

Professor: John Peterman, Humanities Honors

Essay: Knowing Who We Are


Students were to approach this essay by making sense of and connecting five books read in the second half of the course: King Lear, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, To the Lighthouse, The Trial, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Students were told their ideas need not agree with any experts but should be clearly explained using supporting evidence from the texts and from outside sources if desired.

There are some who would say that the purpose of one’s life is to find out who you are. However, is any person objective enough to really know that for themselves? It could be argued that you can only know yourself in relation to other people, that only through your actions towards other people or through their perception of you can your true self be determined. But this means that your identity would be wrapped up in other people, which could be just as much of a detriment as a help. In the books we have read in the second half of this semester, especially as we creep toward the modern era, are characters that seem to be much more flawed and uncertain in their convictions and life choices. For instance, Odysseus despite all his many flaws, was still the hero of the story and remained so for the entirety. He was depressed at times, but his overall goal was never really challenged. Starting from King Lear, where our protagonist begins as the most powerful man in the land and whose loss of his title, family, and subjects has a severe psychological toll on him, but may have opened his eyes to who he really is. Stephen Dedalus, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is a character who, unlike some of the others, we follow throughout his entire life so far. Does this fact and his subsequent violent swings of character, from frequent user of prostitutes to staunch religious scholar and beyond, make him more of a fleshed-out character? Does this search for who he is seem more complete as we reach the end of his story? Perhaps what makes these epic heroes seem more secure in who they are is because most of them are fully grown and have a few adventures under their belts before we even meet them. In To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay, our main character for much of the beginning, seems to be content with her identity and position in life, or at least has made peace with it. But does her constant presence stunt the growth of the personal selves of every other person in the household? In The Trial, Joseph K thinks he has a pretty good grasp on who he is, but similarly to King Lear when he loses the things he finds pivotal to his identity, it begins to shatter. The Reader from If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller starts off with not just an ambiguous identity, in real life he does not really exist at all. In the beginning chapters, he could literally be anyone. However, over the course of the story and the adventures he goes on, he starts to make decisions for himself, taking risks and forging a new identity. He becomes someone who does not passively let life wash over him, only taking slight risks in the comfort of books he does not read as joyously as he could, but really making something of himself. All these books to one degree or another deal with the complex question of the self: who am I? What do I want? It is questions like these that have plagued humankind for probably as long as we have had the wherewithal to think of it, and it probably always will. How these different authors, and by proxy their protagonists, deal with this question says not only a lot about the narrative but also the author and time period it was written in.

King Lear starts off as a self-assured king who is trying to do the right thing but is blinded by his own pride to see the great mistake he is making. His flaw is his inability to know himself, as his daughter Regan, who professed to love him but is really plotting against him, says in the first act: “Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” (I.i.300). As we continue through his journey, we find that self-knowledge is certainly possible, but perhaps not worth it at the point we find him at the end of the play. Goneril and Regan call him a fool behind his back because everyone knows that he loved Cordelia the best, and that she loved him, but due to his impromptu interrogation and her lack of response he declares she doesn’t love him and essentially banishes her. When she comes back for him and tries to save him despite all he’s done and said to her, he knows that she truly loved him, but it only makes the pain of her dying all the more devastating. When he believes the false pretentions of love Goneril and Regan spout about loving him, he also believes that like Cordelia they will respect him and care for him in his old age, giving him the respect he believes he deserves despite giving up his kingdom to his daughters. When he meets the rude awakening that this is not the case, and starts to understand that neither his daughters nor their servants treat him like the king anymore, he is even shocked at his own actions in response: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (I.IV.215). In Act 3, a storm rages and Lear is caught up in it. He rages at the thunder and rain and is clearly from his own admission losing grip on his sanity. Yet there are pockets of lucidity that go to show how much this experience has humbled him. Lear seems to recognize that nature is not one of subjects, something he can have control over, and he as a king can be caught in a thunderstorm just as any of the commoners in his realm. He even laments in this Act that he did not do more during his reign to help the downtrodden, now that he finds himself one of them. Clearly the identity that was most influential in Lear’s life was that of being King, even more than being a father. Now that he no longer has that power, he comes to realize just how tenuous his self-esteem and respect in the kingdom was, and that there is not much separating him from the peasants and such. He calls himself a slave, and a “poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” something he would never have referred to himself as in Act 1. The other characters also have their struggles with identity. Edgar by necessity must give up who he is to survive and puts on the persona of a crazy person to escape his own father. Edmund
is very clear on who he is from the start, he knows he is a bastard and will do anything to rise above this title and surpass his brother. He is self-aware enough to know the struggles his bastard status puts on him, but perhaps not enough to know how much of his scheming was based on the simple need to feel loved and appreciated by someone, as is reflected by some of his dying words as Goneril and Regan died for him: “Yet Edmund was beloved.” (V.3.238). Edmund unlike Lear knows exactly who he is, his evil nature, who his friends and enemies are, and yet he still dies. King Lear gains his self-knowledge too late, after he has already lost everything, and Edmund knew all along who he was, and still lost; in King Lear knowing yourself is not enough, you must also know what to with that fact, and figure it out before your time is up.

Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is a character that unlike the others we get a pretty full picture of throughout his life until he makes the decision to leave Ireland as a young adult. His inability to get a grasp on who he is or who he wants to be is greatly impacted by his environment. His relationship to his family, Irish nationality, and Catholic faith make this soul-searching particularly hard for him, as oftentimes he must choose between what he wants and what these external influences are telling him. This can be seen from very early on in the plot, where Stephen is initially very hesitant to go to the strict Clongowes Wood College, so far away from his family. Yet, eventually he finds his place and comes to be content there with the other boys, despite the institution being so religious, something he bristles on later in life. When he comes home for Christmas dinner he faces the harsh reality the unrest in Ireland is having in his own family, and perhaps
this formative experience shapes his later disinterest in the politics of Ireland and his willingness to leave despite how many youths were pressured to stay and fight for their freedom. Later, his father causes some money troubles which results in the family having to move to Dublin, where Stephen goes to Belvedere for school, and begins to use his life-long fascination with writing as a creative outlet. However, this also causes another crisis of faith, where he completely abandons his strict Catholic upbringing and participates in many sexual sins that are clearly forbidden, mostly visiting prostitutes. Some people, especially those that are not religious or like to rebel against the status quo, may feel that Stephen is finally coming into his own at this point. However, is this accurate? After all, in Chapter 2, Stephen only comes across and eventually has relations with the first prostitute because he realizes the empty gesture of giving gifts to his family, and that he still does not connect to them. It is likely this lack of familial connection in tandem with his natural base sexual urges that cause him to continue wallowing in sin, not some self-reflection leading to epiphany. Even when later in the story, after he has gotten over his uber religious faze and acknowledges that recognition of beauty and sensuality is necessary when he sees the beautiful girl wading in the water, he does not seem to go back to his almost hedonistic practices earlier. He instead directs these physical impulses into his imaginative writing process. As he comes to this conclusion, he has almost come to the end of this journey and has come to a place where we as the reader can say he has some grasp on who he is. What gets him to this point seems to be the experience of going through two extremes, and then also the scholarly college experience that he figures out is not for him. Many people seem to find themselves or their purpose through other people. This does not seem to be the case for Dedalus. In the last chapter, Stephen wishes to be free like the birds he sees in the sky above him, and only by separating himself from his family, country, religion, and even the friends he meets in university who support him and philosophical ideas. Only when he casts all these things aside and crafts his own pair of wings -like his namesake Daedalus- can he ever truly be free to be and do what he wants. It seems Stephen, and by extension Joyce, feel that to be an artist is a generally separate experience: that one must be in exile to do it properly, and to his credit Joyce did actually do that. However, just as Joyce left Ireland but was still clearly slavishly connected to it, writing books about it and having a map of Dublin on his floor- Stephen does not seem to be fully leaving Ireland behind either. He rejects the aspects of the community he does not want to embrace: the religion, his family, patriotism- but he states that through his books he wants to forge the “uncreated conscience” of his race, to give a voice to the people that have made him who he is. In that way, he will immortalize the people he knew and the experiences that shaped him as a person, causing them to be forever entangled in himself.

The characters in To The Lighthouse may be a comment on how we create our own identities, for better or for worse. Mrs. Ramsay seems to have crafted her own self-image through being a homemaker and having an influence on everyone’s lives. This can be seen in her smothering of James, not wanting him to be upset or disappointed, even if it is unlikely he will be able to go to the Lighthouse. She assuages her husband Mr. Ramsay’s blatant insecurities and covers over his bluntness to the children. This does not just apply to her family, however. She tries to play matchmaker with family friends two times, and one time it actually works. Mrs. Ramsay wants Lily to marry William Bankes, who is successful and who she thinks will be a good match, but even though they get along, this does not come about. She does, however, succeed with Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, who get engaged that day. She even manages to soften up the prickly Charles Tansley, who seems to derive his persona by the inferiority complex fabricated from a life of low income. After Mrs. Ramsay dies in the Time Passes section of the story, seeing how the family has coped without the all-encompassing influence of Mrs. Ramsay gives us an insight on who they are. Mr. Ramsay is perhaps the most glaring example on someone who has placed all his self worth on one attribute in his life. Similar to Joseph K’s banking job and King Lear’s royal position, when one feels that they are only important or worth anything because of the title they have, they are constantly fearful of losing it or not being the best at it. Mr. Ramsay from the very beginning of the book is constantly questioning his merits as a philosopher, periodically looking to his wife for confirmation of his talent and of her love for him. She graciously gives him both, which perhaps feeds this vicious cycle more than helps it. After Mrs. Ramsay is dead and he is on vacation with his family and Lily, he looks to her for sympathy and she cannot, or will not, give him the same reaction his wife did. This perhaps finally gives him the necessary push to self-reflect on his action and come to terms with the person he has become. When after all these years, the boat finally makes it to the Lighthouse and James gets what he wanted, Mr. Ramsay also finally reconciles with his son and daughter. Lily is a character that appears in both the beginning and ending sections of the book, and she seems to be looking for herself as well. She wants to be an artist, yet she cannot finish a painting. She is greatly distressed by Charles Tansley’s assertions that women cannot create art, perhaps not only because of the sexist comment but because
if she truly cannot be an artist, then what is she? The Lighthouse has many characters that have put titles on who they are for themselves and then slid into these “off the rack” identities. Mrs. Ramsay the housewife, is seemingly content with her role, as she holds much control and influence over the household. Mr. Ramsay the philosopher is constantly under stress to live up to the title he has given himself, to be the best, he does not consider that he has other things he should take just as seriously as part of his identity: namely being a father. Lily the artist struggles with this label and the one of her being a woman until the very end, when she finally finishes the painting of Mrs. Ramsay she started all those years ago, proving to herself the validity of her artist identity and being at peace with Mrs. Ramsay’s wife and mother role that Lily never connected to and possibly resented. The answer to how to find one’s self except for Mrs. Ramsay seems to be separating yourself from what you find comfortable, to expand your surroundings, and be around people that challenge you.

The characters in The Trial live a in semi-dystopia, which could be compared to the bleak lack of individualism found in 1984, so the concept of self is purposely chipped away throughout the course of the narrative. Joseph K is an upper-class man with a respectable job, and that is how he defines himself as a person. Especially toward the beginning of the book, it would seem that other aspects of the self that people might take into account, such as kindness, respect for people (especially lower-class women) and interest in the socio-political climate of where you live are not something Joseph K prioritizes. Perhaps his inflated view of himself gave him a false sense of security, that he could not have something like this happen to him, because he is important. Only when he is “arrested” by the Court and begins his trial does this fragile self-image start to crumble, and he is faced with the destruction of all that makes him, himself. This dissolution can even be seen in his name. He goes from Joseph K, respected banker, to K, man willingly killed in a ditch in the middle of nowhere. Kafka seems to be making a statement about how large institutions like the Court can be so pervasive in their influence and tactics, that they can make it so that eventually you don’t even exist. They can take away any material thing you own or title you have,
so you must have more to you that they cannot take away. Tactics the Court uses are like many totalitarian governments: having no respect for personal property, rights or freedoms, lack of respect for the accused, not informing the public, and overall not treating their subjects like human beings. K’s arrogance, stubbornness, and anger can make him not the most likeable main character in a story, but when we get glimpses of this person, especially when he becomes more and more frustrated with the Court and his elusive trial, we know that he is a real person with a personality. He makes decisions, not always the best ones, regarding women and trusting them even when he really shouldn’t. He sends his niece gifts that she is so touched by she sends his uncle up to help him although he puts no effort into sending the gifts whatsoever, delegating the task to his assistant. Joseph K is more than just a bank clerk, but after the Cathedral scene in which he is told about the futility of trying to find compassion or even common decency in a system like this, it wears on him. Seeing him slowly devolve into someone who has accepted his fate, who ends up dying alone “like a dog” is made so much sadder because you know that at one point he had an identity beyond this.

If On a Winter’ s Night a Traveller tells the story of the Reader, and in a way it catalogues his journey to becoming a different kind of self. Postmodernism posited a new idea, that your identity as a person was always changing and the Reader shows how one’s “self” is fluid, and how you can choose over time to become a different kind of person and be constructed by the events and people around you. There is no doubt that the Reader at the beginning of the story and at the end are very different people. Boring and indecisive, the Reader at the beginning is so bland he could literally be a self-insert character. He could without incident become anyone who is actually reading the book; in fact, he would not even have to be a he, he is so vague. This was clearly intentional on the part of the author to set up the story, but even when we are given more details about him and his life, he is no heroic protagonist. He, by the author’s own admission, is not the type to take risks or expect too much from life, for fear of being disappointed. He only takes the chance on books because he figures even if he is let down it will not be devastating. Given this description, you would think that eventually he would give up on his wild book chase, given that he is disappointed multiple times by the stories he finds, never able to come to a satisfying conclusion. This Reader seems like the type to at some time cut his losses and read one of those other books he hasn’t gotten to. This is where we reach how other characters can shape who we become as people. Ludmilla is the woman he meets at the bookstore trying to find the rest of the first story, and her interest in this, as well as his interest in her, spurs him onward through this quest. Most of the time it is not advised to change who you are for a romantic partner, but in this case, it seems to allow the Reader a way to engage with reading that he never thought of before. With Ludmilla, he regains the sense of wonder for where a story might take you, and how important it is to appreciate that. He tracks down book manufacturers, professors of obscure languages, travels to find these books, even though he knows at some point the story will likely not be finished. He is insecure about his ability to even talk to Ludmilla at the beginning and is greatly disheartened when he finds out she gave him a different phone number. At the very end of the book, he simply decides that his story will end with him marrying Ludmilla, and that is what he gets. She seems to be the main factor in this great change of character. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller seems to be saying that our identities are flexible, that we can change them through our actions at any time, and that some people may need a little push from others. The Enlightenment idea that may have permeated the other stories to some extent is that you the individual create yourself, like unformed clay laid out in front of you that you must shape through sheer force of will and intellect. The newer postmodern idea Calvino brings up focuses much more on how our culture and the people around us shape who we are, sometimes much more than we would expect.

Can anybody tell me who I am? Depending on who you ask, this question can have a lot of answers. King Lear has characters who discover for themselves, usually to their own detriment, the makeup of their souls. It is not enough for them to know who they are; they must work on themselves and not live in denial for any of that soul-searching to be worth it. In Portrait, Stephen goes through many changes in lifestyle as he matures, and yet the base fascination with language and writing never leaves him. Parts of us that are so formative, like Stephen’s art and home, never leave us no matter how far away we go. Only when Stephen nurtures this part of his identity by leaving the shackles of Ireland behind him does he have the possibility to truly know himself. In To the Lighthouse, characters grapple with the “selves” they make for themselves, and how to live up to their own expectations. In this story, you choose who you become, but this choice is not always easy, such as the case of ever insecure Mr. Ramsay, or creatively stunted Lily. In order to be a fully realized person, you must not only choose a title, you must follow through on all of them, not just the ones you like at the time. The Trial is set in place where your identity does not matter to the Court, nothing does except the Law, which is elusive. Joseph K’s elitist attitude and persona stem from his job security and rank, but when that leaves him all he is left with is himself: arrogant, sometimes angry, bad with women, but a person nonetheless. His descent into losing all of this is the great tragedy of the story. The Reader of If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller is bland and uninteresting, but over the course of the story makes himself into the protagonist you want to see. Unlike some of the other stories, you can not only choose who you are, you can alter it midway through your life, and these changes are often influenced by other people. To be yourself is one of the great challenges when you are living in a world that often congratulates people for being anything but. Knowing yourself is even harder, and most people cannot look at themselves objectively enough to find out. However, if you do, you may be able to prevent a tragedy, reconcile with your son at a lighthouse, save your life, or change yourself entirely to become better than you once were.